Taking Sides: War-like alliance promises to wreck Britain's Euro credit

FOR a man who runs a country of 17 million souls with a wrecked economy and an enfeebled military, who daren't spend two consecutive nights in the same bed, and who by no stretch of the imagination is a threat to world peace, Saddam Hussein isn't doing too badly. He has turned the world's eyes upon Kofi Annan's mission to Baghdad as they were upon Chamberlain when he went to Munich. He has divided diplomats and military strategists, not to mention the United Nations Security Council. He has also demonstrated that when push comes to shove, Britain will always choose America over Europe.

The daily press releases from the Foreign Office proclaim our presidency of the European Union, and unblushing ministers wear ties with its garish starfish logo. As far as Iraq policy goes, however, the matter was dispatched on the sidelines of a foreign ministers' meeting in Panama (which half the foreign ministers didn't even attend).

Now a common EU stance on Iraq was never on the cards. But subconsciously it's almost as though there's been a heave of relief: enough of quarrels over such abstrusities as Euro-X, enlargement and the rest. The "special relationship" with the US lives again in the field where in fact it has never died, defence and intelligence. Perish the thought that this most militaristic of nations just likes a good war, but as a result of its reduced circumstances has to tag along behind the US to have one - that way an aircraft carrier and a couple of dozen strike aircraft buy us a ticket to the big leagues. Tony Blair talks Europe, but like every recent British prime minister since Ted Heath, he has given his heart, wisely or unwisely, to Washington. In this case, unwisely.

The Anglo-American alliance plots war, unmindful of the absurdities. Military force ought to be only employed as a last defence of paramount interests - in this case the security of the West's oil, and the furtherance of an overall Middle East peace settlement. Now the oil argument which underlay the last Gulf War (Kuwait would today be languishing unnoticed as Iraq's nineteenth province had it produced dates) simply does not apply. Oil prices are standing at a four-year low - and that with only a fraction of Iraq's potential production reaching the market. Nor, unlike his annexation of Kuwait, can Saddam's present behaviour remotely be construed as a threat to the key world producer, Saudi Arabia.

As for the wider Middle East, an attack against Saddam can hardly avoid making matters worse. If we "win," and somehow destroy his grip on his country, it might simply break in pieces, a prospect that appals most of its neighbours. Meanwhile, Britain knows the glaring asymmetry between US attitudes to Iraq and Israel (that other serial ignorer of UN resolutions) simply risks inflaming Arab, and especially Palestinian, feelings. Suicide bombings, reprisals, accelerated Israeli settlements - the whole poisonous cycle of hatred would only accelerate. But Britain keeps mum.

Ah yes, it will be pointed out, but what about the chemical and biological weapons at the heart of the fuss; these must go, to protect the region from his murderous designs. To which one replies: What about the Anglo- American doctrine of deterrence? Saddam may be obsessed with "honour," and dream of being an Arab Nebuchadnezzar who crushes the Israelites. However he is not insane. Seven years ago, he possessed far larger stocks of chemical and biological weapons. But he dared not use them then because he knew he would be repaid in kind, and he dare not use them now. One drop of anthrax released, and retribution would be merciless. One CW or BW warhead against Israel, and Iraq would be a smoking hole in the ground.

But of such considerations we hear nothing. One merit of Britain's instinctive siding with the US in fraught moments is that, by doing so, we quieten isolationism's call, and remind America it has real friends - a case of Britain not so much choosing between the US and Europe, as functioning as a bridge between them. For without military support from its European allies, would the US have bothered to liberate Kuwait in 1991? And even if it had, its feelings about such fair-weather friends would not have been tender. Who can blame those Congressmen who make active European backing for this Iraqi mission a condition of continuing US help in policing the peace in Bosnia? And can Europe dispense with the transatlantic Alliance? The answer, as Bosnia shows, is an unqualified "No".

This Britain understands better than anyone. But the real friend also has the privilege, nay the duty, of saying awkward things in private. Maybe Tony Blair did raise a few such qualms during his triumphal progress through Washington this month, but there's been scant sign of it since. Only the edgy body language of some Foreign Office officials betrays doubt in high places. Otherwise, nothing but bravura from new Labour's untested global warriors. Yes, we can inflict "massive damage" on Saddam's facilities, George Robertson assured yesterday, brushing aside even the commander of US air forces during the Gulf War, who cautioned that only 20 per cent of the sites might be neutralised.

Mr Robertson of course was warning Saddam Hussein to expect no favours from Kofi Annan. Si vis pacem, para bellum, and one can only hope this is part of a cool, unblinking endgame that carries the day by diplomatic means. But the odds are on a shooting war. And when it's over, it is hard to imagine Britain emerging with much credit in the EU it professes to lead. Europe's eternal suspicions about Britain will have been confirmed.